Huge crowds took to the streets of Syria's cities on Thursday in an orchestrated show of support for President Bashar al-Assad on the first anniversary of a bloody revolt against his rule that shows no sign of ending.
Turkey hinted it might consider supporting a buffer zone inside Syria to cope with a flow of refugees across its border that has increased sharply following a recent government offensive against rebels in the nearby Idlib region.
Opposition activists said pro-Assad forces shot at crowds in various locations when they tried to protest against the regime, but residents reported that demonstrators did gather in the smart Shaalan district of Damascus to voice their anger.
The U.N.-Arab League special envoy, Kofi Annan, continued to push his proposals to halt the violence, speaking to senior Syrian authorities and Russia.
The door of dialogue is still open. We are still engaged with Syrian authorities over Mr. Annan's proposals, Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva on Thursday. He's been in telephone contact with the Syrian foreign minister during the course of the day ... as well as with international actors, member states with influence.
However, Western diplomats expressed pessimism in private over Annan's chances of success.
Syria said on Wednesday it had given a positive response to Annan's approach. A Middle Eastern diplomat characterised the reply from Damascus as not a 'No'. But a senior Western diplomat in the region said Damascus spurned Annan's ideas.
State television showed thousands of people in central Damascus, waving portraits of Assad and flags of Syria, Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have not joined Western nations in backing an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside.
We sacrifice our blood and souls to you, Bashar! the crowds chanted as three helicopters flew past in a military salute, trailing the national colours on a blustery day.
Official media announced government forces had cleared armed terrorists from the northwestern city of Idlib, suggesting the army was gaining ground against the uprising which has killed at least 8,000 people and crippled the economy.
Opposition activists said 23 bodies were found dumped on open ground near Idlib, some bearing signs of torture.
Despite growing international isolation and biting sanctions, Assad can still draw on significant support from within Syria and few expect a swift end to the violence. Deep divisions in opposition ranks have also helped his cause.
Besides Damascus, pro-regime rallies were staged in numerous cities, including Deraa near Jordan, which was the epicentre of the original protest movement last year, but has been filled with security forces backed by tanks for the past 24 hours.
Critics said the government had bused in state employees to bolster the demonstrations and cancelled a national school holiday to get students and teachers to join in.
As government rallies played out before television cameras, the army pursued their heavy crackdown on opposition centres.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said 20 people were hurt during a bombardment on Rastan, a rebellious town in Homs province. It added that three Syrian soldiers, including a colonel, were killed in Homs on Thursday.
The SOHR gets its information from a network of Syrian residents. Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
The U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos said Syria had agreed to a joint mission to assess the humanitarian needs of various cities and towns this weekend, but she indicated this was not enough.
I repeat my calls to the government of Syria to allow humanitarian organizations unhindered access, so they can help people in need, in a neutral and impartial manner, she said.
Britain's Guardian newspaper published what it believes to be genuine emails sent and received by Assad and his wife between June and February, revealing a ruling family largely insulated from the gathering crisis.
Syrian activists said they were appalled by the messages which appeared to show Assad and his wife shopping for pop music and luxury items while the country descended into bloodshed.
He was downloading iTunes songs while his army was shelling us. His wife was buying expensive things from Amazon, that makes me feel sick, said an activist called Rami in Homs.
FLOOD OF REFUGEES
Turkey said 1,000 Syrians had crossed its borders in the last 24 hours, fleeing fighting in Idlib, raising the total of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to 14,000. Among those who escaped was a Syrian general, the seventh to cross into Turkey.
Deputy Turkish Prime Minister Besir Atalay told NTV television that Turkey, which hosts Syrian opposition activists, was working closely with the Arab League to tackle the problem.
Of course Turkey has a lot of experience on this matter, about what can be done including the buffer zone which you mentioned. The subject you mentioned is among the possible things we will probably work on in the coming period, he said.
Turkey set up a buffer zone along the border with Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s when tens of thousands of refugees headed towards Turkish territory.
The United Nations says some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a regional refugee crisis.
The government has blamed foreign powers and terrorist gangs for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the uprising.
Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines, with the Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 percent of the population of 23 million, at odds with Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 percent but controls the levers of power.
Some Sunni Arab governments, notably Qatar, have advocated establishing an Arab peacekeeping force and arming the rebel Free Syrian Army -- a disparate band of militants led by deserters who lack the firepower to defeat Assad's army.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer, additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva and Jonathon Burch in Reyhanli, Turkey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)